Photo (cc) by James Durkee
Could Google rig the next presidential election?
Yes, experts say. They contend that the company best known for its search engine could determine which candidate wins in any of three ways.
Biased search rankings can sway undecided voters’ preference by 20 percent to 80 percent without people realizing they have been manipulated, according to research based on five experiments in two countries.
Those percentages dwarf the small margins by which elections are often won. For example, the research notes that half of U.S. presidential elections have been won by margins of less than 7.6 percent.
The study was published in the current issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
One of the study authors, Robert Epstein, senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology and former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today magazine, writes in a Politico op-ed:
Whether or not Google executives see it this way, the employees who constantly adjust the search giant’s algorithms are manipulating people every minute of every day. The adjustments they make increasingly influence our thinking — including, it turns out, our voting preferences.
According to Epstein, the “three credible scenarios under which Google could easily be flipping elections worldwide as you read this” are:
- Google executives decide to fiddle with search rankings to ensure a particular candidate’s victory.
- A rogue employee tinkers with the rankings to help out a candidate.
- Google’s search algorithm pushes a candidate to the top of rankings because of “organic” search activity by users. “Under this scenario, a computer program is picking our elected officials,” Epstein writes.
One way voters can try to avoid falling victim to the search engine manipulation effect, the Washington Post recently reported, is to use multiple competing search engines and judge the results for themselves.
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